Argentina have suffered a disastrous start to a World Cup for which many had them down as favourites after losing 2-1 to Saudi Arabia.
Ranked 51st in the world, lower even than hosts Qatar, Saudi Arabia looked to be in for a long afternoon when they conceded a 10th-minute penalty scored by Lionel Messi. The Albiceleste subsequently had three goals disallowed for offside, courtesy of Saudi Arabia’s high line and VAR’s new “robot” technology.
Yet Herve Renard’s side hit back through Saleh Al-Shehri, a forward with a market value around £600,000, as he held off Tottenham centre-back Cristian Romero to fire into the far corner past Emi Martinez.
Within five minutes, Salem Aldawsari had made it two, evading three defenders with an audacious turn and strike from the edge of the box.
Julian Alvarez came closest to an equaliser in injury time but saw his strike cleared off the line by Abdulelah Al-Amri, though an offside in the build-up meant it would have been disallowed regardless.
As we have come to expect at this World Cup, there was a lengthy stoppage time exacerbated by a worrying collision between Mohammed Alowais and Yasser Alshahrani, the latter coming off far worse and requiring a stretcher to leave the pitch.
Argentina’s only injury scare was over Romero, who was substituted in the second half, but they have far graver concerns after this result, having starting the tournament behind only Brazil as likely winners with most bookmakers.
For Messi, too, in almost certainly his final World Cup, the pressure is on to at least challenge their South American rivals for the title – but as Roy Keane put it on ITV punditry duty, “you can’t just say he deserves to win, he’s got to go and earn the right.”
“It was a great reminder to anyone watching the game of football, if you think you can just turn up and depend on your quality to get you over the line, you’re mistaken,” Keane added after the final whistle.
“I am gobsmacked,” said Graeme Souness. “I have never seen an Argentina team not be up for a cup in terms of a physical encounter. They were wishy-washy. Argentina have got to say to themselves ‘we’ve got to match this’.”
Argentina have lost their opening match of a World Cup on four prior occasions, in 1958 to West Germany, in 1974 to Poland second round and in 1982 to Belgium. Those three defeats all preceded relatively premature exits from the competition, but in 1990 they lost to Cameroon in their opener and still made the final.